by Matt Smith
Cases investigated by the husband and wife paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren have been made into movies before. They were at the center of the investigations at the Lutz home in Amityville, which inspired an immensely successful horror film and the Snedecker haunting which became the (very loose) basis for A Haunting in Connecticut. Ed was a demonologist, and Lorraine, who is still living, claims to be clairvoyant. As the title card for The Conjuring tells us, they are the only demonologists recognized by the Catholic Church.
The Conjuring tells a purportedly as-yet untold story from the Warren’s case files, in which the Perron family is terrorized by a demonic presence in their farm house in Rhode Island in 1971. The Perrons, Roger and Carolyn (Patrick Wilson and Lili Taylor) move into their new home with their five daughters, only to shortly find out that something is wrong. They uncover a boarded up set of cellar stairs in the hall closet. Their daughter Cynthia begins sleepwalking in the middle of the night, drawn to a giant wardrobe in her older sister’s room, banging her head on it repeatedly.
Christine Perron is awakened in the middle of the night by something pulling her leg and sees something in the deep shadows behind the bedroom door telling her that it wants to kill her family. Carolyn has new bruises every morning. All hell breaks loose one night when Cynthia again enters her sister’s room and they are attacked by the decrepit ghost of an old woman crouched at the top of the wardrobe. The doors locked, the family bursts through it into the bedroom to find the girls okay, but extremely distressed. Carolyn has also been attacked, locked in the basement after following the noises of a childhood game of hide-and-clap (played constantly by her children) down into the cellar.
The Warrens are recruited by Carolyn while giving one of their lectures on the paranormal. Though Ed is hesitant due to a recent negative experience during an exorcism that traumatized Lorraine, they accept once arriving at the house and seeing how thoroughly infested by the entity the family’s life has become. The conflict between their drive to work on cases and help others and their struggle to protect their young daughter from the dark forces at the heart of their work frame the film with a sense of greater purpose and raise the stakes. We are not in it solely for the family directly under attack, but also to see the Warrens through their trials as the collateral damage from investigation after investigation.
The pervasive dread that is filtered through every frame of this film is blood curdling in a way that most supernatural horror films never achieve. Director James Wan may demonstrate his influences a bit too heavy-handed at times, but he creates the best ghost story made by an American studio in quite some time. By the time the third act rolls around and we are forced into another exorcism with the Warrens, it is forgivable that it feels so familiar because it has all lead to this moment through the organic progression of the film’s events. Reductive, yes, but in no way is it inferior. The Conjuring really shines in its overall execution.
Following 2010’s Insidious, Wan once again proves that he knows how to construct a tension filled supernatural horror film that relies more on atmosphere and the exercise of restraint than it does the visual revelation of those things that go bump in the night. In 2010 Wan was on the rebound from a series of critical and commercial failures in the wake of his international mega hit Saw. He came back fighting with a film that terrified audiences and demonstrated a filmmaker who had come into his own as a master of form and mood. The Conjuring is an even stronger film than Insidious, however, due to the grounded performances of Farmiga (in yet another amazing turn and one of her strongest performances to date) and Wilson as the Warrens, and the terrific sense of “this really happened to these people” provided by the cohesiveness of the Perron family’s portrayal. Wan proves himself to be a true master of the form, and with Insidious Chapter 2 due for release this Fall, I wait with bated breath to see what he has up his sleeves.
The Conjuring is an great horror film, and deserves a spot in the canon up there with The Omen and The Amityville Horror. It shares a great number of traits with the horror pictures that have stood the test of time. I have no doubt fans will welcome this film with open arms and that it will enter the pantheon of “must watch” films that younger generations of fanatics are given to cut their teeth on. It will eventually get there, and James Wan, in spite of his forays into the action genre, will inevitably return. There’s something in the blood of the great horror directors that keep them coming back and reinvigorating themselves and the genre from time to time. Wan is certainly taking his place as one of the greats.
4.5 out of 5 stars